After the director of Iceland´s Food & Health Institute was grilled on national TV the other night, many Icelanders on social media called for him to be fired. Even though he is responsible for animal welfare laws and policy in the country, the state media, RUV, revealed that since 2007, the director knew that regulations and laws regarding food production and animal welfare were systematically violated by the second largest egg producer in this island country.
The director decided not to inform the public of the violations and allowed the company to continue to use the official ecological label, which consumers believed meant they were buying ecological free range eggs, where focus was on the animal welfare of the birds.
To top the scandal, for over a year any producer has had the opportunity to use the official ecological label without its production fulfilling minimum welfare requirements. The Icelandic public is understandably furious and feels betrayed by the egg producers and government.
Why is this important for IFAW and our work for whales in Iceland?
First of all, media in Iceland is paying a lot more attention to animal welfare than before, mirroring the increase in public interest. The message this is sending is that the Icelandic public will not tolerate systematic animal cruelty and inhumane treatment.
The reaction by supermarkets was swift and decisive; the morning after the RUV report, all supermarkets had removed the eggs from their shelves, making public declarations about their actions. Overnight the egg producer lost all his customers in the country.
The Icelandic Association of Consumers is criticizing the government heavily for lack of surveillance and for not informing the public as they knew for years what was going on.
The issue should raise questions about other and even more controversial food production in Iceland. This summer 46 minke whales were hunted by two local companies in Faxaflói Bay outside Reykjavík. While most of the hunted whales are being dumped back into the bay, less than 20 percent are taken to harbour and processed by the same companies that are hunting them. They then do the packaging and marketing themselves and finally distribute the whale meat and sometimes blubber to supermarkets and restaurants.
The only surveillance, which was only recently introduced, is with the whalers weighing their catch in harbour. A vet from the same Food & Health Institute who was supposed to be watching the notorious egg farm, inspects randomly the meat (their data is not made public).
In reality Icelandic consumers and those tourists who are tempted to taste whale meat have very little idea what the meat contains. It is known that levels of PCB and mercury are high in cetaceans but the limited public information about this, giving basically only the average status in comparison with Norway´s whale meat, is little to go on. PCB and mercury levels are apparently higher for some reason in Norwegian minke whales, which is strange as it is believed that the North Atlantic minke whale stock in Iceland is the same as in north Norway.
With increased customer and animal welfare awareness, let’s hope the public and media will now be looking at how brutally whales are killed and how risky consuming whale meat can be for people’s health.